WASHINGTON --- With 10 different unmanned aerial vehicle systems flying over Iraq and Afghanistan, military leaders met with members of Congress to discuss the rapidly changing role of UAVs in military operations.
Lt. Gen. Walter Buchanan III testified before the House Armed Services Committee subcommittee on tactical air and land forces March 17 to explain how far UAVs have come and how much farther they can go. The general is the U.S. Central Command Air Forces commander and 9th Air Force commander.
“I have seen our UAV force evolve from one that was principally an intelligence-collection platform in Bosnia to one that today has a very potent air-to-ground capability and represents a truly flexible, combat platform,” the general said.
This evolution took UAVs from their original mission of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to the multifaceted roles they play today. Besides providing the traditional role, today’s UAVs also engage in high-value targeting, interdiction, close-air support, force protection, man-portable air defense and counter mortar suppression, combat search and rescue, special forces infiltration and exfiltration, and battle-damage assessment.
These capabilities are just the beginning, the general said.
“We continue to look for better ways to (use) the [RQ/MQ-1] Predator in support of the ground force and coalition soldiers,” General Buchanan said. “We are using (enhanced video receivers) in theater to truly exploit overhead sensors by streaming Predator and other sensor video directly to supported ground units.”
As the capabilities of UAVs continue to grow, some members of Congress question the future of manned aircraft.
“I don’t think... it’s an answer of either (unmanned) or (manned),” General Buchanan said. “It truly is an integration of the right place to put the mission capability.”
This integration of manned and unmanned aircraft is working well in operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, he said.
“I can remember (a) particular evening where I actually took (manned) aircraft and I put them in a position to protect an MQ-1 (Predator),” General Buchanan said. “At the same time, the reverse is also true. During OIF, we used UAVs the first night to go ahead, and they helped break down the door to … bring in manned aircraft.”
He told the House members to expect more of the same.
“What you and I are going to see in the future is more of what we’ve seen over the last two years,” the general said. “Two years ago (we) were only flying UAV within line of sight, and then within that first year by satellite link.
“Today, all of the Predators that I (use) in Iraq, (we are) flying from Nellis Air Force Base (Nev.),” he said.
Eventually, General Buchanan said, CENTCOM commanders may be able to fly a UAV over Iraq one day, and with a launch and recovery base nearby, turn around and fly that same UAV over Afghanistan the next day.
“I think they’re here to stay,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to replace manned (aircraft). There are some missions where you need a (pilot) in the aircraft. At the same time, I think we’re going to see more and more integration.”